This post is derived from a series I taught on game design at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2014.
Today we are looking at what makes an interaction - any interaction, pretty well - tick. This theory can probably be applied to automata and car engines and your day job, but it is at least slightly about games.
To be an interaction, you need some components - rules that dictate how an interaction goes.
- The Floor Is Lava - this means we can’t step on the floor. Oh no! Wait, why do we want to step on the floor?
- We Need To Get To The Door - the goal is the door.
- How Can We Move - the fun comes from trying to get to the door without stepping on the floor.
Winning would then be the first person to get to the door. Or maybe the whole team gets to the door. The players decide.
This may seem early, but it’s important to remember right from the start: People love to cheat. Why do people cheat? Complicated question. What is cheating?
It’s operating outside, or in opposition to, the specified set of rules. So stepping on the floor without “dying” is a cheat.
This is the MDA - the academic variant of the game loop. Robin Hunicke’s paper can be found here.
The MDA was articulated by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek. Hunicke has gone on to advise on The Sims, along with a variety of other projects. You can find a great interview with her on Gamasutra, in which she argues that designers should design for empathy.
How do you want someone to feel while playing your game?
Sad? Afraid? Depressed? Happy? Competitive? Involved? Curious?
A mix of feelings - and probably a lot of curiosity, but that’s my bias - will bring out the best long-term results.
What are you trying to say?
Ds4ia is trying to communicate what it’s like to not be at home in your body. The reward system is the rapid change of levels from various inputs.
Depression Quest is communicating about what a maze it is to get out of chronic sadness.
Civilization communicates how much fun - how powerful it feels - to systemically crush a society under your boot, and how frustrating it is to have archers bring down fighter jets. Which, you know, The Hunger Games, I guess someone was paying attention.
Mechanics: What are the real rules of your world? How many of them do you actually need? Fewer might be better.
Dynamics: And how do those rules interact? Do they change over time to keep a player engaged? How are player interactions structured by those rules? Is there anything… unexpected?
Aesthetics: How does that interaction make us feel?
The MDA specifically addresses Monopoly, which is a famously terrible game. Classic Monopoly has a strong beginning and middle, but like many board games, an appallingly unbalanced endgame. One player mainly wins, is insurmountable, but unfortunately must spend the balance of the play chasing the others around the board, until they simply give up. This is an unfun interaction, which could be improved by a mechanic of redistribution of capital, but of course, this is not the point of Monopoly. The point of Monopoly is to show off the terror of monopolies. It’s great at that.
Rewarding your players is tricky.
For me, one of the biggest rewards of playing a game is having something to do with other people that does not involve any kind of personal conversation or small-talk. This is why I believe board game cafes are so popular: it’s a way of spending time with people doing something besides eating, nothing, or watching a screen.
However, the game itself requires some incentive, and some games have stronger incentives than others. This applies broadly to pretty well any game, up to and including slot machines, which let you access the fresh content of life provided by new money.
In video games, these rewards are more likely to be new armour; a new level, and various microgames such as Dys4ia and the WarioWare series are incredibly good at this; a new move and its subsequent set of character animations.
“Power” levels are tricky to address and largely illusory, because when you increase in “power” what really happens is that the game world “broadens”… by narrowing. The game world you’ve been through increases, and the game world you have yet to access decreases. Power levels mainly act as gatekeepers on game world content - creature designs, art, new music (think of Sephiroth’s final battle song, or the spectacle of the last bosses in pretty well any action game). This is why the endgame of most JRPGs is a miserable slog. There’s one piece of new content left, and you can’t get at it until you’ve spent a ludicrous amount of time levelling up. Respect your player’s time. Chrono Trigger is an excellent game for this, as it has an endgame accessible at almost any point in play, with different content - the famed multiple endings - to match.
The most interesting reward to manage is the sense of failure. Ideally, you would prefer your player to remain engaged with the game. Some games - They Bleed Pixels, Limbo - make failing fun, usually by combining a loss sequence with some flair with a sense of having learned something new from a system of interaction. How to reward a player’s loss in such a way that they wish to keep playing is a huge challenge.
My favourite example of a “good” death in an action game is in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. The story itself is good, with beautiful world design and solid parkour-based level mechanics. If you mess up your moves through a level, you can rewind and try again a limited number of times before “game over” happens. This puts the emphasis on style rather than on not falling down a pit. Highly recommended.
If you’re interested in death, and good deaths, you might want to follow the Play Dead Podcast by Gabby Darienzo.
To make a thing, eventually, you have to make a thing. Decide a little about what you’re making and why, write that part down, and then start to play with it.
If you’re making a game entirely on your own, and this is totally a do-able thing, I recommend finding a group of people to show it off to. This, like a writer’s circle, or an artist’s co-studio, will help to keep you honest. You will be able to show progress publicly, and be able to figure out what you want to do next.
Then play with it. It’s a game. It’s what you do.
This is a board game produced by our games class in about an hour.
It has a clear beginning, middle and end. The initial movement and the idea of an escape from an island came from Forbidden Island by Matt Leacock and CB Chanja. I laid out a 6x6 board because it fit nicely on the paper, and started people as far from the goal as possible.
We called it Calvinball Murderisland (The Way Out Is Murder) because the emphasis was on changing rules, and killing your fellow players is a very quick motivator. We only added the murder halfway through.
This learning how games change through different stages of play - the Loop often lets you down during the end of play, after all, so we worked up a start, middle, and end-game where all players could still influence who would win and who would lose, even after the inevitable had befallen them. At the end, there’s only one winner. This was also our sample of how to paper prototype interaction: Dangers could be anything - a rancid sea of chili! A wizard! and so could treasure - there was a wheelbarrow on there.
The idea was simply to move quickly through a system to emphasize the possibilities for fun within system development, and to collectively think about what makes something fun.
This is a truly beautiful game that, famously, does not have levelling loops. Instead, it has events linked to the iOS clock.
You CAN cheat, but it knows when you’ve set the clock differently. It has moon phase requirements. It is pretty great, even though at this point, it’s not something I can spend the time to engage with as it is meant to be engaged with. Sadly, some of us are not inclined to cooperate with anything linked to our real time lives, even for art’s sake; I have other games to play.
Time is the only resource we really have. Games that abuse their loop functions - slot machines, for example, or the Free To Play variant of Dungeon Keeper - are not respectful of that resource.
As designers, we have a responsibility to respect the fact that human time is finite. Work to make a game rewarding all the way through, work to make the time investment worthwhile.
Rant on Free To Play: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpdoBwezFVA